Sep 272011

The Book of Imaginary Beings Jorge Luis Borges

I won’t bother saying too much about Borges. He is, like Cortazar and Lem after him (both of whom you can expect me to have more to say about at some later time), a creator of books that are themselves self-reflections on what it is to be a book.

The Book of Imaginary Beings is, maybe, not this kind of book exactly. Here is what it is: an exhaustive catalogue of imaginary beings drawn from all the mythologies and literatures of the earth.

I have (for no very good reason) decided to make an attempt to illustrate each entry in order, beginning with “A Bao A Qu”:

Borges' A Bao A Qu

“A Bao A Qu”

If you want to look out over the loveliest landscape in the world, you must climb to the top of the Tower of Victory in Chitor. There, standing on a circular terrace, one has a sweep of the whole horizon. A winding stairway gives access to this terrace, but only those who do not believe in the legend dare climb up. The tale runs:

On the stairway of the Tower of Victory there has lived since the beginning of time a being sensitive to the many shades of the human soul and known as the A Bao A Qu. It lies dormant, for the most part on the first step, until at the approach of a person some secret life is touched off in it, and deep within the creature an inner light begins to glow. At the same time, its body and almost translucent skin begin to stir. But only when someone starts up the spiralling stairs is the A Bao A Qu brought to consciousness, and then it sticks close to the visitor’s heels, keeping to the outside of the turning steps, where they are most worn by the generations of pilgrims. At each level the creature’s colour becomes more intense, its shape approaches perfection, and the bluish form it gives off is more brilliant. But it achieves its ultimate form only at the topmost step, when the climber is a person who has attained Nirvana and whose acts cast no shadows. Otherwise, the A Bao A Qu hangs back before reaching the top, as if paralysed, its body incomplete. its blue growing paler, and its glow hesitant. The creature suffers when it cannot come to completion. and its moan is a barely audible sound, something like the rustling of silk. Its span of life is brief, since as soon as the traveller climbs down, the A Bao A Qu wheels and tumbles to the first steps, where, worn out – and almost shapeless, it waits for the next visitor. People say that its tentacles are visible only when it reaches the middle of the staircase. It is also said that it can see with its whole body and that to the touch it is like the skin of a peach.

In the course of centuries, the A Bao A Qu has reached the terrace only once.
This legend is recorded by C. C. Iturvuru in an appendix to his now classic treatise On Malay Witchcraft (1937).

It occurs to me that Borges is a sort of bridge from the 19th to the 20th centuries, and also that we aren’t far off from a time when the 19th and 20th centuries are considered their own continuous era.

Sep 202011

Panopticon by Steve McCafferyPanopticon Steve McCaffery

We now move forward to 1984, an auspicious year for the publication of Steve McCaffery’s Panopticon; the (fictional) year of the George Orwell novel and the (actual) year of Michel Foucault’s death.

At the heighth of the postmodernist cultural tendency, the narrative is exploded, there is no fixed point of reference. At times the structure of the book is subverted, with parallel streams running down parallel columnns or along a horizontal strip along the bottom of the pages. McCaffery is continuing to play with ideas of confusing the unitary narrative going back to earlier projects such as The Four Horsemen (sound poetry group) and the Toronto Research Group (see previous post). When the book comes closest to a standard linear narrative, it loops around descriptions of its own structure as a book, as the movie based on the book, as a game referred to as a movie in a book, and so forth.

The original idea of the Panopticon was a prison designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th Century wherein the prisoners would be watched from a central ‘all-seeing eye’ without knowing they were being watched. In the context of McCaffery’s book the metaphor seemingly reflects itself so the reader is both prisoner and guard (within the context of the book) as well as objective viewer from outside. He succeeds in transcending the medium to the point that the book does give rather the impression of being a piece of experimental film or theatre somehow. And yet simultaneously, the book creates a very confining paranoid space.

Chapter Seventeen of a book entitled Panopticon concludes with a sequence of brief utterances issued by the narrator to a nameless party. The latter has entered a study and replaced a book on a shelf. The book is entitled Summer Alibi. In the third brief utterance in this sequence the narrator recalls a similar occasion when she too had entered this same room to replace a letter on a rosewood escritoire. Prior to this entry she had bathed in preparation for an evening at the theatre. It is known (from the evidence of a newspaper advertisement described in detail by the narrator) that the title of the play is The Mark. Later, in a book entitled Panopticon, this same description will reappear. There, however, the play will be a film and entitled The Mark and the whole reference will appear as a cancellarium, printed in an exergual space described as being a cinematic screen in a book the same nameless party has written.

Start with the assertion that you never failed to locate, nor to execute, any of the following commands. Let the image of the bath persist and split a second time. Place the woman in the room and in the theatre. This time allow the man to walk away. Follow him until you reach the study door. Don’t bother to describe the room, just put him in it. Let him meet the other man. Don’t mention names. Allow them to leave the room and walk down into the street where a planned complication will occur. Finish the chapter. Switch off the machine. Now place the pen he will use equidistant between the two edges of the page where the two men have been left. Add the phrase “she was middle aged.” Now mention another room. Let one of the men go into it. Describe his hands. Describe specifically what the hands are doing. Let the two men walk a block or two before you stop them. Watch them carefully. When you bring them back to the study door make sure the door opens inwards (i.e. away from you) and that the hinged side has a long cracked edge. Now watch how he wipes his hands. Memorize where he puts the book. Note the shelf and the adjacent titles. Note the way he dries his hands and how he refolds the towel. Make sure he notices the cracked edge of the door. Force his eyes to follow the wall until they reach the place where you stand. Don’t let him see you. Move away at this point and start to type again. Describe his nose. Describe the marks on his cheek. Make sure there’s a new mirror in the bathroom. Make sure you delay him and bring him to the spot too late. Get him anxious. Leave him irritated. Make sure the coffee’s cold. Change the time. Set the action in a new place. Change the title. Change the focus of the lens. Tum the lights up to their brightest and shine them directly in his eyes. Repeat the phrase NOTHING NEW WILL OCCUR. Pull back his head by his hair. Keep the curtains closed. Show him the knife. Remove the coffee. Don’t let him smoke. Make sure the cup gets broken and that all the coffee spills on the floor. Don’t mention the time. Answer all his questions. Bring in a new cup. Now describe the room. Insert four new chairs in the scene you describe. Now change the title to Toallitas. Say it’s a film. Tell him that you have a part in it. Tell him it’s about a murder on board a boat. Then leave him alone in the room. Leave him wondering. Leave the lights on bright. Don’t take your eyes off him for a second. Change the title again then move the scene to a different place. Don’t let him see where he’s going. Place him on a bench in an open park at the east side of the city. Tell him it’s spring that’s been very sick and now he’s recovering. Now switch on the machine and record everything that follows. Use your own voice. Describe the ducks on the pond in the park. Tell him he’s going to be all right. Describe the bench he’s sitting on. Mention the plaque on it. Mention the words carved into it. Mention the trash can to the side. Now remain silent. Leave quietly. Don’t let him know that you’re gone. Go back to the study and watch the other man. Ask him all the questions you can think of that might relate to his movements over the past five days. Sit him in a chair with a high back. Focus the bright light on his eyes. Finish the sentence then let him move to the door. Force him to take up the pen and write some more. Tell the other man that he’s a woman. If he tries to shift the scene or mentions the strategic sections of the woman emerging delete him from your own story. Describe him in such a way that he’ll be dead. Put parentheses around the whole incident and leave quietly. Replace the entire paragraph with the phrase HIS BODY REMAINED MOTIONLESS AND A COLD LUMP CAME IN HER THROAT. If he writes he’s dead then shift the scene to the garden and replace the former line with the phrase HE’S MOVING QUIETLY TOWARDS THE GATE. Now you can drop the spoon. Don’t tell either of them about the contents of the letter. Finish it off with a brief history of the place. Polish off the room in a brief sentence. Describe the woman getting out of the bath. Change the title of the book to The Mind of Pauline Brain. Now watch carefully how the keys drop to his feet between his shoes. Don’t describe them. Look very carefully at his face. Now watch him pick up the spoon. Make him put it on the escritoire. Now make him pick up the key. Introduce a sudden noise that frightens him. Let him run to the door but make sure the door’s locked. Tell him a lie. Tell him you’ve just returned from a visit to a friend. Lie and say you’ve forgot the name. Don’t mention the movie. Stop the sentence just as he’s about to leave. Repeat the phrase I BELIEVE THE DOOR IS ALWAYS KEPT LOCKED. At this point the other man might ask you where the keys are. Tell him you’ve lost them. Make sure you freeze him and describe him in detail (facial features, mannerisms, family background. etc.) Describe your own return to the park. Now interrupt as many conversations as you can. Make sure that he’s watching you as you watch him. In the book describe him as a woman. It’s important to keep control of this surveillance scenario as long as you possibly can. Don’t worry that you can’t see, make sure, however, that when you can’t see that somebody else can. Now you can delete all reference to the spoon. Repeat the phrase NOTHING NEW WILL OCCUR. Now delete the second man. Remove the eighth, the sixteenth and the thirty ninth paragraphs. Return them to their files in the desk. Now take out the index file and check the possible descriptions. Pause from your typing to look at the man in the park. Switch off the taperecorder. Check that all books are back on the shelf. Now let him close his eyes. Let him get up from the bench and open them again. Let him walk towards you. Switch the scene suddenly to a year ago in the study. Take off the blindfold. Make him turn on the switch. Describe him in a position of abject terror. Tell him it’s all right. Make him walk across the floor to the window. Describe him looking out. Replace the blindfold as he reaches the final sentence. Describe him as writing rather than reading. Change the final sentence to something else. Make sure you keep it vague and ambiguous. Leave the body in the room. Now describe whatever you want. When you leave the room make sure the machine is switched off, the book is replaced on the shelf, that the light is out and the door locked. Check your watch as you leave. It should be precisely nine thirty seven.

Update: McCaffery’s Panopticon is being reprinted for availability in October 2011!

Tangentially related:
Panopticon (wikipedia)
Michel Foucault (wikipedia)

Sep 172011

Rational Geomancy coverRational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine (The Collected Research Reports of the Toronto Research Group 1973-1982) Steve McCaffery and bpNichol

Lots of good thoughts on reading and writing and explorations of the post-narrative whatsis. Diagrams, games, programs, cartoons, poems. Often half-baked scholarship but carried by enthusiasm and sense of fun. Some echoes of Fluxus-type improv/art games.

I do love the notion of the book, or the book and reader together, as machine. The process of book-reading is very mechanical, composed primarily of 3 movements; horizontal scanning of characters/words, vertical movement down columns, and the flipping forward (or backward) through pages.

The authors are the Canadians Steve McCaffery and bpNichol, both also members of the sound-poetry group The Four Horsemen.

bpNichol was also a writer for TV shows like Fraggle RockFraggle Rock and Care Bears, which many of you should be grateful you are too young to remember.

Steve McCaffery was later the author of a very unusual novel called Panopticon, more on which to follow shortly.


There seems to exist at present a dichotomy in attitude between the book as a machine of reference and the book as a commodity to be acquired, consumed and discarded. Traditional printed narrative is largely thought of as the transcription of a hypothetical oral activity: a speech line running from a point of commencement to an end. Such books transcribe language along horizontal axes running from top left to bottom right of each page. This occidentally conventional manner of reading along the length of the line and down the length of each page from first to last in actuality reconstitutes the duration of a “listening.” In reference books such as dictionaries and directories however, the oral hypothesis is minimized to the point, perhaps, of non-existence. Such books are not thought of as having authors or a supposed unitary voice behind them. They exist as physical storage units for information, to be consulted at various times, but not designed to be consumed in a single, linear duration. Popular fiction, marketed for mass audiences, performs a different function; there the page’s non-sequential storage qualities are ignored. Nobody would consider the page of such a book as an area requesting the reader’s free, non-lineal eye movements over a multi-activating, multi-acting surface, but rather as a unit necessarily endured as a means to the complete reception of the book’s information. The current predicament of popular mass fiction is the competitive threat staged by the other great machines of consumption: television and the movies. Where plot consumption is the effect intended, television and film are indubitably the more efficient media. The reason for this is clear. The book’s power as an object to be dwelt on and referred back to are not desirable features. Not only the page but the book in its entirety are conceived as obstacles to be overcome in order to achieve the desired goal of unproblematic, uninterrupted, unsophisticated consumption. Television and the cinema on the other hand afford more rapid and totally sensorial means of satisfying such an appetite for story. In the light of this phenomenon two important implications of such pre-masticated reading as Reader’s Digest become obvious. There is a “division of labour” on the reader’s part in that he renounces a portion of the total reading role which is performed for him. And secondly the more serious implication of a hierarchical structuring imposed upon the reading experience, by means of which a superior “essence” is thought of as being abstracted from a “lesser” padding. To extend this consumer metaphor we may say that plot is product within linguistic wrapping. Dictionaries and directories work against this status by throwing emphasis onto the single page and the information stored thereon. In their function, dictionaries move much closer to the page-iconicity described above. Narrative then can be developed freely along either of two directions: one rooted in oral tradition and the typographic “freezing” of speech; the other set in an awareness of the page as a visual, tactile unit with its own very separate potential.

Sample from BibliOdyssey

This is a blog I’ve wanted to start for a while now. The name is inspired by the great Bibliodyssey which I recommend all to visit now even if never to return. My purpose here is manifold. I’ve for most of my life been delighted by odd books. Herein I plan to write a little about odd books, possibly sometimes just about good books not necessarily so odd, possibly sometimes about odd things not necessarily books. But mostly I think about odd books.

We are right now just at the beginning (I guess) of the Next Big Thing After Gutenberg. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type meant that printers could make books, and we no longer needed monks. Which very quickly meant most everybody could afford a book or two. Now we have things like the Gutenberg Project – further democratizing the possession of information and all that. Or maybe ‘lumpening’ rather than ‘democratizing’. I’m certainly not going to bother doing any research right now, but I’d imagine that the average hard drive could store all the text from the Library of Congress circa, I don’t know, 1980?

This is interesting and I’m tempted to say it’s good. But when you hear the word ‘Kindle’(tm) don’t you think of Fahrenheit 451? All the same, when you think of Fahrenheit 451, don’t you think of the movie rather than the book?

If I had a point it would be this: Books are special. Old books smell great. I remember really liking the smell of some new textbooks too (been a while since I’ve smelled a new textbook). Paper is generally pleasing to the fingers whatever its texture. Apart from tactility and smell, it’s hard to imagine a better technology from a user-interface point of view for human hands and eyes. I’m not quite qualified to judge this point as I haven’t yet even used an e-reader.

In favor of e-readers: data is cheap. Easy to transport, easy to share (disregarding DRM), easy to store. And in favor of the digital age generally, we are rapidly archiving all of our cultural works. As data gets cheaper, these archives are more and more redundant and distributed, which ironically seems to mean that as the storage gets more ephemeral, the work is more enduring! Everything on tape or film for instance will not survive long unconverted. Books may be a bit longer-lived, but mostly pre-20th century. Latter-day paperbacks are going to crumble to dust pretty soon if they aren’t vacuum-packed, right?

This is also probably a good time and place to mourn the passing of the used bookstore as an institution. I think this is a bigger loss than the drive-in movie theatre, which is saying a lot. Patronize your local used bookstore! When I’m looking for a particular old book, nothing beats going on the internet, locating it in 7.4 seconds, ordering it, and waiting for it to come through the letter slot. But when I’m not looking for anything in particular, what then?

I’m digressing. The long and short of it is, I’ve always liked books, as long as I knew what they were, and I have an especial place in my heart (/spleen) for those oddities that I’ve come across here and there, and I’d like to share some of them with you. I’m also hoping to hear about other strange books and I’m also hoping that my need to have strange books to blog about will spur me to seek out more of them!

Tangentially related:
Every 6 Hours the NSA gathers as much data as is stored in the entire Library of Congress

Warning: We cannot be held responsible. Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha